Good movies seamlessly combine hundreds of shots so well that we don’t really think about how they are made. The truth is, low-budget indies and Hollywood blockbusters are painstaking endeavors. Each requires focus and attention to the smallest details. Stephen Becker recently spent a day on a local film set to get a better understanding of how movie magic comes together.
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It’s 6:45 in the morning, and coffee is brewing in director Eric Steele’s room at a hotel near Love Field.
“This is my bedroom slash our crafting area, slash where we eat lunch, slash where we store equipment, slash where we watch dailies, slash where we store everyone’s gear,” he says.
Steele and his crew will need the caffeine to make it through the 12-hour day in front of them – their fourth straight. They’re here shooting a film called Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self. It’s adapted from a play Steele wrote. The film follows a motivational speaker as he tells a sales conference his story of surviving a harrowing experience and losing a hand and a leg.
It’s only a six-day shoot, and not a single line of dialogue will be recorded today. Instead, Steele and his team will capture some of the tiny moments between the action – the glue that holds the movie together.
“Today is what is going to make the movie work,” he says. “It’s all about simple actions. Bob walking down a hallway. These things that speak so loudly about his character – even louder sometimes than the words do. So I love days like this.”
On movie sets, the cliché is true: you hurry up and wait. Only after everything is in place around 8 does the first filming location of the day – a conference room in the hotel – go silent.
“Roll camera … SCENE 1A, Take 1 (clap) Action!”
For the next hour or so, the crew films a hotel employee prepping the room where Bob will deliver his speech. Once the scene wraps, about half of the crew crams into a tiny hotel room on another floor. Steele directs Barry Nash, who plays Bob, as he sits on the bed making notes for his speech.
The schedule for the film is tight, even for a low-budget indie. That’s possible because Bob Birdnow has just a handful of characters and one shooting location. It’s easy to see why a $100-million blockbuster takes months of shooting and hundreds of crew members.
By 2, nearly everyone gathers in the hotel diner for the most complicated shot of the day. Workers lay a dolly track on the floor so that the camera can smoothly pan the room before landing on the main character. He stares wistfully out the window before hastily packing his things and leaving. You can feel his anxiety over his upcoming speech.
Rob McCollum is one of the extras whose job it to sit at a nearby table and act naturally.
“I said, ‘Hey, this is supposed to be business guys, right, Eric? You want me to have my laptop out?’ And he totally thought I was doing it as a service to the creative project, when really I had a lot of e-mails and work I needed to do … I’m a method extra, so if I’m playing a guy sending e-mails in a café, I think it’s important that I be a guy sending e-mails from a café.”
Thirteen takes and two and a half hours later, the scene is in the can and everyone scatters for the day. The crew won’t hear the “that’s a wrap” announcement for another two days.
By 6 p.m. Steele and his producing partner, Adam Donaghey, have the next day’s shoot mapped out. And it’s time for a beer in the hotel bar.
“The stuff that we did today is not going to be in the film for more than a few minutes. And it took all day to do it,” Donaghey says.
“All that we shot today will probably result in a minute and a half of footage on screen,” says Steele.
So if you’re keeping score, 18 people worked 12 hours each to produce 90 seconds of a movie. Why do it.
“I think everyone that’s here is here because they want to do this intangible thing that is creating art in their own way,” Steele says. “ Everyone’s unconsciously motivated by that – everyone on this kind of a set is.”
And by 7 in the morning, everyone will be back to do it all again.